- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2007

We got the worst of both possible outcomes in 2001, when we let Ted Kennedy stir up George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind act with his silver ladle. Not only is the federal government deeply intrusive in educational matters with NCLB, but the Democrats are pulling Republicans and conservatives into the full-funding shell game.

By the time this Congress — this Democrat-controlled 110th Congress — finishes its finagling to reauthorize NCLB, only the Lord knows what the legislation will look like. It most assuredly will bare no resemblance to what conservatives had in mind to reform education.

Currently, there are more than 100 scraps of NCLB proposals floating up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thank God not all will be incorporated into NCLB.

One of the conundrums regarding NCLB — and, for that matter, its equally acronymic precursor, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA — is teacher pay. Opponents and supporters alike of NCLB question how funds and federal grants are distributed around a state as well as among a state’s school districts.

Many argue that the funding formula should be weighted to benefit teachers and schools with the neediest children. But trying to reach a “fair” formula for distribution creates another dilemma. If that formula were indeed weighted on behalf of the neediest children in the neediest schools, should the accountability and academic bars remain the same across the board?

Lower the bar because of race, disability, language or sexual orientation and the “bigotry of low expectations” rears its ugly head. Give teachers the benefit of the doubt about low-performing students because of race, disability, language or sexual orientation, and accountability is kicked to the curb. Expect less from students and teachers — regardless of class size, teacher pay, etc., etc., all the issues that unions control — and you get less. It’s a no-win situation.

It’s why education should be as far removed as possible from Washington politics and federal control. It’s what we get when we mix compassionate conservatism with progressive liberalism. It’s what we get when we put ESEA, IDEA, NEA, AFT and NCLB in a cast-iron gumbo pot and hand the ladle to politicians who hear us asking, “Are our children being served,” but in response hear politicians posing their own perennial question, “Are our campaigns being served?”

Let’s take a quick trip in the way-back machine. JFK and LBJ, stuck between two landmark reckonings — Brown v. Board of Education of 1954and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — gin up what eventually becomes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, bless his socially conscientious heart, goaded and riled Democrats and Republicans alike as chairman of the House education panel.

Skip to the next decade. Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Congress, smarting along with unions over the rising black clout (and caucus) — and not to be outdone by their Democratic ancestors — took the “E” out of HEW and established the cabinet-level Education Department.

Enter Ronald Reagan, who rode into Washington promising to abolish the Education Department but grew wobbly when the time came to shoot to the left and the right. Yet another opportunity for the Republicans came in 1996, when Bill Clinton was so busy smelling himself he couldn’t stop thinking about tomorrow. The Republican Party made a contract with America in its platform in 1996, a presidential election year: “The Federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the marketplace. This is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice at all levels of learning.” Weak knees again got the better of them.

The NCLB is not all bad. Indeed, students should be tested every year to show whether they are progressing beyond a baseline. Testing also measures whether teachers are teaching, and what a school’s academic strengths and weaknesses are. But the goal of all students demonstrating proficiency by 2014 set the Republicans up with a perverse pacifier.

Democrats are in control of Congress and the reauthorization of NCLB. Republicans are on the sidelines, suckling a few promising tweaks. One such change, called the A-PLUS Act, would allow states to effectively opt out of NCLB and put the control of education right back where it ought to be — in the hands of state and local governments.

To be sure, NCLB in and of itself is not the problem. The core problem is that control of public education has been handed over to the federal government in the name of accountability. Shame, shame, shame. On the Republicans and on the Democrats. What an awful hoax to play on children because of their race, disability, language or sexual orientation.

By all indications, the No Child Left Behind Act will be reauthorized by this Congress. For what that’s worth.

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